If there were awards for Best Program for an Off-Off Broadway Play--or even Best Program for a Live Cartoon in Animal Drag, as Mabou Mimes's newest piece, Animal Magnetism, subtitles itself--this play would win it with this line alone, second from the bottom: Flying by Foy. An intriguing line. One wants to see more. Yes, there is flying in Animal Magnetism, and furry foam-rubber animal suits and cartoons to go with them, and original lounge-lizard music and--it's quite an evening.
Mabou Mines co-artistic director and writer Terry O'Reilly has embarked on an ambitious project here. He has translated comic book and animation style into a live-action show. Production design, set, lighting, animation and, of course, flying combine to create a sensual, haunting jungle atmosphere. The production aspects of the piece are an unqualified and bewitching success. Unfortunately, the story and pacing of the piece are not as airtight: the plot is nebulous and confusing at times, and some sections are overlong.
What's discernible from the plot is this: Tin Tin, a rhinoceros with a past, is an eco-criminal, trafficking in rhino horns. He's having an affair with Cheri the monkey, an actress who, at the start of the show, can't go out because she's on call for an infomercial. The play is punctuated with amusing incongruities such as jungle animals talking about email exchanges and dot-coms. In any case, the relationship runs an all-too-trod human course: she makes demands, he balks, tragedy ensues.
There are some messages here. Tin Tin, who once fled the zoo in a much-publicized escapade, warns Cheri, "Once you go against the predators, you become their prey." This echoes the indirect reference to Ionesco's Rhinocerous, a play that also grapples with the dilemma of conformity versus principle. With the help of animation, there are jabs at commercialization: at one point, advertisements play in the background for philosophers-endorsed products ("Quench your thirst for beauty at our Kant-eena..."). And Tin Tin's horn-selling racket smacks of emasculation. Animal Magnetism can thus be seen to provide a cautionary tale about what we do to keep ourselves alive in the jungle out there.
But why the live action/animation format? What is it, exactly, about the theme of conformity that needs to be expressed through this medium? What of poor Cheri, petulant-monkey-seductress caught on a trapeze in the misogynist plot-clutches of the unable-to-commit male? It's a chicken-and-egg--which inspired which--game to gander at, but the creators might have done well to solidify the marriage between form and content.